Senators press OPM for answers on new security clearance agency

Two senators have a lot of questions about the Office of Personnel Management’s plans to stand up a new federal security clearance agency.

Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.) have expressed some concern about OPM’s direction for transitioning the federal security clearance process from the current organization, Federal Investigative Services, to the new agency, the National Background Investigations Bureau.

“We are concerned that this transition is moving forward without firm plans in place for the transition, operation and oversight of the new bureau,” they wrote in May 18 letter to acting OPM Director Beth Cobert. “We also want to ensure that the NBIB will not simply be a new name for the FIS. Instead, it is critical that you make significant structural changes to improve the integrity, management and oversight of the security clearance process.”

The senators asked Cobert for more information on seven detailed questions, which cover everything from the expected timeline, budget and organizational structure for the NBIB to OPM’s plans for developing a case management system and IT infrastructure. They requested:

  1. A timeline, total cost estimation, funding structure, expected budget, organizational structure, proposed pricing for NBIB services, projected number of employees and contractors and their roles within the development process, as well as any changes to OPM’s current revolving fund under the new NBIB.
  2. Documents that show how NBIB’s purpose and operations differ from FIS.
  3. OPM’s plans to develop an IT and case management system, with details on the contractors and federal agencies doing the work and requests for proposal.
  4. NBIB’s independent authorities and whether the bureau will rely on OPM or other agencies to handle them.
  5. What background investigation policies will change under NBIB and why those changes were proposed.
  6. Which inspectors general will have oversight over NBIB and its development.
  7. How NBIB plans to address the existing backlog of periodic reinvestigations, particularly once agencies begin to re-evaluate their clearance holders every five years.

OPM has until June 17 to provide answers, the McCaskill-Tester letter said.

The senators also specifically pointed to current, unresolved issues with the backlog of periodic reinvestigations. The number of overdue reinvestigations doubled over the course of fiscal 2015, according to a first-quarter update to Performance.gov. FIS ended the year with 8,076 overdue investigations in its backlog, compared with 3,998 cases at the start of 2015.

Wait times to receive a clearance also reached new highs in 2015, which both senators emphasized in the letter.

But whatever plans OPM has to resolve the backlog must maintain “the integrity of the investigation process,” McCaskill and Tester said.

To address the backlog, OPM is hiring 400 more background check investigators and is strategically placing them in the agencies with the highest demand for clearances, Cobert said in January when the administration announced plans to stand up the new agency.

Lawmakers in the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee have expressed many of the same questions as McCaskill and Tester. During a hearing in February on NBIB, some members likened the creation of the new agency as “putting a fresh coat of paint on a house with a bad foundation.”

And they were equally skeptic of OPM’s general timeline to stand up NBIB. Cobert has said the bureau will achieve initial operating capability by October 2016.

OPM is in the middle of the transition process now. The agency in March named James Onusko as the NBIB transition leader.